Otherness in Literature

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Otherness is a term in literature that means the quality of being different. When a character in literature is the other, that character is seen as not fitting in or being different in a fundamental way (Melani, 2010). Another important feature of otherness is that it can take many different forms. It can also be based on a number of different factors. A person or group of people may base their othering on things like race, religion, gender, or social class. Also, the person or group of people being othered does not necessarily have to be the minority. According to Melani, when someone is doing the othering, they feel superior or dominant to the group they perceive as the others (2010).

In the story This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona by Sherman Alexie, Thomas Buildsthe-Fire is the character who is othered. This is a short story about a young Native American named Victor, who is poor and living on a reservation. He needs to find a way to travel to Phoenix, Arizona to retrieve his father’s ashes, get the last of his father’s money, and his truck. The only way he can make the trip is to take a hand out from Thomas in exchange for taking Thomas with him. Victor feels uncomfortable asking Thomas for a favor because they haven’t spoken for a long time, and because nobody ever talks to Thomas. The main reason Thomas is othered by the people on the reservation is because he is always seen talking to himself, and he likes to tell the same stories over and over again ( Alexie, 1993). Throughout the short story Victor and Thomas’s relationship is revealed through flashbacks to events when they were kids. During one flashback, Victor remembers time when a group of Indian boys othered Thomas. Thomas had jumped off the roof of the school and for a few seconds appeared to be flying. Everyone else was too scared to try such a stunt. When Thomas crashed to the ground, all the boys made up a chant about Thomas “breaking his wing”. The real reason they were making fun of him was because they were jealous of Thomas and the courage he showed ( Alexie, 1993). Also, Victor says that nobody talked to Thomas because they see him as crazy, always telling stories and sometimes being able to predict the future. A good example was when Victor was seven; Thomas predicted that Victor’s father was going to leave the family, long before he actually had, and before anyone else knew. Thomas also knew about Victor’s father dying before anyone told him, and knew Victor would ask to borrow money for the trip (Alexie,1993). If Thomas hadn’t gone up to Victor and revealed these things to him, as the reader, I wonder if Victor would have had the courage to ask Thomas for a favor to begin with at all.

I feel the author’s perspective is that Tomas’s otherness, being a story teller, is actually the reason he was put on this earth. Even though it is the reason he is alienated by the members of his community, it is so much a part of who he is, and what gives his life meaning, he will never change in order to be accepted. He tells Victor that he realizes this is the reason people on the reservation have shunned him. He goes on to explain, that he would never even consider not telling his stories, even when people don’t even listen to him anymore because he feels it is the reason he was born (Alexie, 1993). In the end, Victor feels bad, knowing that after their journey to Phoenix is over, he still can’t bring himself to associate with Thomas once they get back to the reservation. During a conversation they have when they get to Thomas’s house, they decide to make a deal. If Victor will stop and listen to a story just one time, that Thomas is telling, Victor does not have to pay him back the money he borrowed for the trip, and there will be no hard feelings between the two young men (Alexie, 1993). In the end, I feel the message the author is conveying, is that it is better to stay true to who you are, than to conform and lose those...
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